A Taste of Rioja

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Rioja. The famous red wine seems to me like Spain’s answer to Bordeaux Supérieur – there’s loads of it around, it has excellent brand recognition, but much of it is unexciting and unmemorable. You find it in every supermarket (in Britain and Switzerland at any rate – France less so, but as we know the French are deeply chauvinistic about wine) and on every wine list. Even within Spain, with its multitude of exciting terroirs and interesting grape varieties, it’s the go-to choice for people who don’t know what to choose, so they plump for Rioja as a safe bet, rather than trying out a local wine, even something potentially rewarding from their own region (nul n’est prophète…).

So while the world has been buying Rioja, I’ve been off exploring the highways and byways of other Spanish regions – Galicia, Catalunya or even, latterly, Mallorca.

All that changed with my first visit to the region in September 2015, when I attended the Cata del Barrio de la Estación in Haro, in the heart of Rioja. It was an eye-opener – not least because I tasted some timber-shivering, memorably fine red wines as well as some gorgeous white Riojas, which in my ignorance I never even knew existed.

Thus it was with alacrity that I accepted a recent invitation from the Rioja Marketing and Communications Bureau in Switzerland to a Rioja “summit”, to be held at Restaurant Stucki in Basel.

Around 20 wine writers and Rioja enthusiasts from around Switzerland assembled in a light-filled room on the first floor of the famous, Michelin-starred Basel restaurant. The tasting was conducted by Iberian wine expert David Schwarzwälder, who comes – logically enough, given the name – from the Black Forest, though he now divides his time between his home in Alsace and his frequent visits to the Iberian Peninsula.

He showed us a startling selection of wines, mainly red with a couple of whites, drawn variously from cool, 700-metre high vineyards (Altos de Lanzaga by Telmo Rodriguez, La Condenada by Artuke) to ones planted in the searing hot alluvial plains of this northern Spanish region. Some were produced in large quantities (Macán, 52,000 bottles), others in confidential amounts (Amancio or Cirsion, 4,500 bottles each).

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The dominant red grape in Rioja is Tempranillo, characterised by Schwarzwälder as capable of great elegance with charming (rather than aggressive) tannins, but lacking structure and prone to reduction (those stinky, burnt rubber smells you sometimes get on opening a bottle), which makes it a good candidate for decanting. Bit parts are also played by Graciano and Garnacha, while whites (below) are made from Viura (aka Macabeo from Penedés) and Malvasia.

The vines varied in age from over 100 years old (Dalmau Reserva from Marqués de Murrieta) to young striplings planted in the past 20 years. All the wines, whether red or white, had seen some oak, in vats or barrels of varying sizes. Some had seen a lot of new wood (mainly French, a little American oak), others had had more discreet exposure, both the proportion of wood used and the length of time aged.

Schwarzwälder is a great presenter. With countless anecdotes and snippets of information about the vineyards, their owners, the wines, where grown, how made and their cost, he made the whole thing come alive. I came away feeling as if I’d met most of the winemakers, thanks to him.

Here’s a lineup of the wines tasted. I’ll spare you my tasting notes (not my thing), with repetitive references to deep ruby colour, berried fruits, terrific tannins, good acidity, mineral expression and greater or lesser oak influence. (Where comments are in quotation marks, they’re from David Schwarzwälder.)

  • La Condenada 2012, Bodegas y Viñedos Artuke, made by two brothers Arturo and Quique Artuke
  • Macán 2013 – from a joint €60mio. Project by Bodegas Benjamin de Rothschild & Vega Sicilia
  • Amancio 2013, Bodegas Sierra Cantabria, who have become one of the leaders amongst the modern generation of Rioja winemakers, “a bit more intellectual than Macán” (above)
  • Pujanza Cisma 2012, Bodegas Pujanza, non-interventionist, indigenous yeasts etc. (and “making the best white in Spain at the moment”) – “the most Iberian style of wine so far in this tasting”
  • Cirsión 2012, Bodegas Roda – modern style of Rioja and among its most expensive, careful use of oak (“they didn’t want to spoil these special grapes with too much oak”)
  • Dalmau Reserva 2012 Marqués de Murrieta – a new-generation wine that should mark the new path for modern Rioja (“I would never have expected Marqués de Murrieta [arch-traditionalists] could make such a wine!”)
  • Mirto 2011, Bodegas Ramón Bilbao, classical producer in Haro which has recently risen from the ashes – one to watch
  • Torre Muga 2011, Bodegas Muga – “neo-classical wine”, grapes for which used to go into their regular range but since the 90s have gone into this special cuvée
  • Altos de Lanzaga 2010, Viñedos Telmo Rodriguez – famous, obsessively perfectionist wine grower with vineyards all over Spain, passionate about indigenous Spanish grapes and distinct terroirs, with an interest in reviving traditional methods and styles. Vines grow at 700 metres, the highest vineyards in Rioja (= freshness)
  • Hiru 3 Racimos 2010, Bodegas Luis Cañas – referred to by DS as “the Conde Duque”, this is his top wine (6,500 bottles), successful, modern Tempranillo style
  • Baigorri B70 2010, Bodegas Baigorri (neighbours of Vega Sicilia) – from La Majestad vineyard, planted 1942, 600 metres altitude
  • Trasnocho 2010, Bodegas Remírez de Ganuza – one of DS’s “crazy guys”, once a sausage maker, then a vineyard broker, now a wine maker, another obsessive, makes between 10 and 20,000 bottles a year, and Transnocho not made every year
  • Contador 2008, Bodegas Contador – another “wild guy”, formerly winemaker to famous Rioja iconoclasts Artadi, now making wine on his own, his 2004 and 2005 rated 100 by Parker.
  • Calvario 2008, Finca Allende – “a complicated guy” making interesting wines from vines planted 1945, in gravel and sand
  • Monte Real Gran Reserva 1998, Bodegas Riojanas – classic, old-style Rioja, this vintage was re-examined recently, the contents checked and emptied out, the dross discarded, the good stuff reserved, blended and rebottled.
  • Valserrano Blanco Gran Reserva 2009, Bodegas de la Marquesa Valserrano – young winemaker who inherited an old winery, makes 3,400 bottles of this gorgeous, golden, beeswaxy white from Viura and Malvasia.

For local (i.e. Basel/Alsace/Black Forest region) sources of these wines, try Manor, Globus or Mövenpick. For stockists of these wines worldwide, check www.winesearcher.com 

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Our first course at the dinner: tuna tartare with shiso onions, star anise and lingonberry “mayonnaise”, by Tanja Grandits
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